The eleventh hour is upon us.

As of press time, capital and operating budgets haven't passed yet. But the outlines have appeared. Here are some highlights:

A NOT-SO-CAPITAL BUDGET.

What: Much of the work that needs to be done to make the state more livable for more people in the next two years won't be possible if the Legislature doesn't write it into our budget in the next two days. HB 1165, the capital budget the House has proposed, offers some happy surprises. They include $5 million for new shelters and transitional housing for homeless families, and twice that amount for decent farmworker housing. The House is also requesting an additional $65 million for the Housing Trust Fund to preserve low-income homes. It looks like state parks will also get sufficient funding so that none will close, though new day fees may be imposed in some cases. There also appears to be new money available for buying out private property for conservation purposes.

Who: Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and a host of others.

Chances: There are lots of kinks to be worked out with the Senate. One controversial issue is the funding for low-income housing and shelters. An aide to House Democratic co-speaker Frank Chopp says Chopp is digging in his heels to keep those dollars.

I say: Sure, this spending proposal has some warm and fuzzy elements, but they're small in comparison to the ugly expense allocated to prison funding. Under this budget, the Department of Corrections will net more than $100 million for expanding facilities, and this doesn't include the money they need for routine upkeep. When will more state money go to building homes than to building prisons? Lawmakers probably say when people stop committing crimes. I would answer that the government should stop looking for new crimes for people to commit.

THE X-FILES BUDGET

What: It's almost time for the Legislature to sine die (Latin for "take this job and shove it" ) and as of press time, there's still no House operating budget. Sen. Valoria Loveland, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, is so anxious to get out of Olympia she's talked of having the Senate put up its own budget first, rather than waiting for the House. Still, each party in the House has dropped hints about its spending priorities . . . and they're not particularly inspiring.

Who: Republicans and Democrats.

Chances: Unknown.

I say: For the most part, the House is leaving funding for many key environmental and social programs as is. It's commonly assumed most teachers may get a 6 to 8 percent raise, but not the 15 percent they want and need. Were it not for the 601 spending limit, I'd say give them the full 15 percent: currently they're paid to be baby-sitters, not teachers. But with 601 in place, giving them the 15 percent raise would endanger other funding that some people can't do without. As it is, aid to food banks will probably take a cut, at a time when the Department of Agriculture says Washington has the third-highest percentage of hungry people in the nation (after New Mexico and Mississippi). Child care assistance, which absolutely must increase during welfare dismantling, will likely stay the same. Eighty-sixed are school anti-drug programs and community volunteer networks that help underprivileged families coordinate their multifarious obligations to schools, social service agencies, and, in some cases, the Department of Corrections. Laugh if you've heard this budget will do much to help salmon. While there is some new money to beef up enforcement of water use laws, which are indisputably key to the fish's survival, other funding falls short. Both parties are willing to put up far less money than environmentalists and even the governor have requested for shoreline management, water conservation, and sediment management.

As for the spending limit, it's got to go. We've got to care for this state as lovingly as we do our own families. That means feeding the hungry, paying the teachers, keeping the water clean. That also means no tax breaks, oh ye golden legions of timber executives, software prodigies, and fourth-generation developers. Pay your damn taxes and shut up!

LITIGATION ARMAGEDDON

Y2K may be the death of some people, but I'm expecting to see environmental groups and developers go up in flames together over salmon's impending ESA listing. While green lawyers litigate themselves into oblivion over rivers and streams where ESA isn't being enforced, builders may exert themselves silly suing where the law is enforced. The Building Industry Association of Washington has already written the National Association of Home Builders asking for help with legal fees in case it decides to sue the National Marines Fisheries Service for listing the fish. But a BIAW spokesperson stresses that was only a precautionary move. If it's a go, she says, the rest of us will know in May. Can I wait that long?

 
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